Posts Tagged ‘A.A. Milne’

Seeing stupid people happy

March 30, 2017

What makes you depressed?

Seeing stupid people happy.

This from an amusingly oddball Q&A with Slavoj Žižek. Whether or not we subscribe to Žižek’s personal brand of Eeyoreish misanthropy (and I confess I don’t, though the thought of Žižek being miserable is certainly a pleasing one), I expect most of us have felt depressed at seeing stupid people happy, whether we realise it or not.

It’s often a symptom of their not sharing our tastes. How, we ask ourselves, can they find joy in something so self-evidently wrong? ‘One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other,’ says Jane Austen’s Emma. I don’t know precisely what Emma is getting at here, but as an Austen heroine she may be alluding to the harpsichord vs fortepiano question. A debate as old as time.

Horses for courses, I suppose. We all know people who spend their time collecting figurines of cats sleeping on pianos, say, or pursuing a career in recruitment, and we don’t call them out on it because it’s not worth ruining the friendship for. They may have had similar thoughts about our increasing dependence on alcohol. But there comes a time when one has to put one’s foot down, and putting one’s foot down usually involves Disney (as it does now).

I happened some time ago upon a quotation of more than usually revolting sentimentality. It was this:

If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together … there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart … I’ll always be with you.

I’m very sorry for having made you vomit, as you will find you just did. I left the ellipses in place because the dramatic pauses they imply are particularly emetic, but even without them this paragraph would constitute probably the most loathsome violation of the Roman alphabet in the history of recorded time.

But enough vituperation. There is a time to spout invective and a time to take action and kill someone, and this is obviously the latter. Who has perpetrated this monstrosity? Step forward, A.A. Milne! Or at least that’s what the internet says.

Look at this. It’s a catalogue of saccharine platitudes, but I’m going to keep quoting it, so if you read further you have only yourself to blame.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.

Promise me you’ll never forget me because if I thought you would, I’d never leave.

Ready for this?

Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.

I mean, Milne’s not exactly Raymond Chandler, but the Pooh books are a fuck of a lot more hard-nosed than this steaming pile of horseshit. Anyway, it’s not Milne, as anyone with half a brain can tell. It’s Disney, or Disney-lite. I can’t trace the source of every spurious Pooh quotation on the internet, but it’s clear enough where the rot started. Milne himself isn’t blameless, but he couldn’t have anticipated the full horror of what would follow when in 1930 he sold merchandising rights to the USA.

The problem is that as the originator of the character in print, every Pooh emission is attributed by default to Milne, and not to whatever faceless corporation reckons (wrongly) that the Hundred Acre Wood’s bee-botherer-in-chief would even think anything as sappy as ‘Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart’, let alone say it out loud; and because of the way the internet works, one error being duplicated in a second and endlessly reduplicated thereafter, the fake A.A. Milne quotation is now ubiquitous. I manage to avoid them most of the time, but sometimes an otherwise benign website posts you a bookmark like this one, as happened a few days ago, and the black heffalump descends.

(This is a perverted rewrite of a comment made by Christopher Robin at the end of The House at Pooh Corner, the episode in which he and Pooh say goodbye. It’s one of the most moving scenes in English literature. It loses something here.)

Pooh Bear has been despoiled by the Disnetic infantilisation of the senses, and the common perception of him now is of an emotionally incontinent brainstormer of fridge magnet slogans. It gives credence to Dorothy Parker’s disingenuous broadside on the books (‘And it is that word “hummy”, my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up’). I hate that Dorothy Parker piece, but it now seems prophetic.

Comrades, we can fight back! Every time someone wrongly attributes a quotation to A.A. Milne on Twitter, inform them politely that they’re an idiot and then block them so they can’t reply. Reread the books, or listen to Alan Bennett reading them. And if you’ve never seen them before, make time for these brilliant Russian cartoons, respectful of the source material in a way that I can only imagine Disney never is.

On reading aloud

June 1, 2015

I have very few memories of being read to as an infant, but it definitely happened. I do remember, aged six or seven, begging my mother to abandon The Hobbit on account of its being so tedious, which she kindly did. And she must have read me Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because I know that I knew them; only I don’t remember it. (There are exceptions.)

Children love repetition, the same stories told over and over again with the same inflection. Every night somewhere a father is reprimanded by his son because he isn’t doing the voices the way Mummy does them. Well, Mummy’s gone and you’ll just have to deal with it, he resists the urge to reply. And get used to not seeing Uncle Nigel again while you’re at it, he’s no longer welcome under this roof.

It’s important to read to your child, but by the same token it’s quite important to have some wine in the evening, and for that purpose the story tape was invented. The stories I remember best from childhood are the ones I listened to on cassette as I went to sleep, night after night. Alan Bennett’s Winnie-the-Pooh when I was younger, but particularly George’s Marvellous Medicine read by Richard Griffiths and The BFG read by Amanda Root and Jeremy Bulloch. If I read the stories now, I still hear the cadences of their voices in my head.

Playing with tapes, 3 years old

Playing with tapes, 3 years old

I made a few story tapes of my own. The first consisted of me reading out Peanuts comic strips. It must have been an odd thing to listen to without the context of the pictures. I remember reciting one strip in which Lucy puts on Charlie Brown’s T-shirt and cruelly mocks him: ‘Nobody likes me! Everybody hates me! Poor, poor me!’ I think I did it because I wanted to be able to listen to it in the car, not being able to read Peanuts while travelling on account of getting sick. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Peanuts

When I was six I graduated to proper stories.

Laura’s baby brother George was four weeks old when it happened.

Laura, who was seven, had very much wanted a brother or sister for a long time. It would be so nice to have someone to play with, she thought. But when George was born, she wasn’t so sure.

That’s the opening of George Speaks by Dick King-Smith, and this is me reading it.

‘… when George was born, she wasn’t so sure.’ I’d like to claim I had an innate gift for storytelling, but surely I’m parroting the way I’d heard someone else read it. I’m not fluent throughout the recording. Words I struggled with: developed, knowledge, bodily, Guinness Book of Records.

More than anything, I suspect, I liked being a presenter. While other boys were dreaming of being lorry drivers or ballet dancers, I wanted to be a DJ. Not when I was six, but the stirrings were clearly there. The end of the story:

I was fortunate that my parents provided me with a second brother shortly after my eighth birthday. I’d been too young to read to the first one, but the second was much better timed. At the age of two or three, he was old enough to understand stories but too young to be able to escape me effectively, so I had a captive audience.

I would have been about eleven when I made a tape of stories for him, read by me and underscored by appropriate classical music. The music for Quentin Blake’s Patrick, which is about a violinist, was the opening movement of Kabalevsky’s violin concerto. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ravel piano music; Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad (there’s a book crying out for a queer analysis, but that’s a post for another day), Holst St Paul’s Suite. It was a labour of love, I suppose, but it was also a project, which made it fun. I timed myself reading the stories before I recorded them, so that I could identify movements of an appropriate length to use as backing music.

When he was a bit older, I read him Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected as bedtime stories. I remember ‘Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat’ and ‘Galloping Foxley’. They took longer than your standard children’s book, but I didn’t have the patience to split them into separate evenings, so if we started one we persevered to the bitter end. Tom would have been about ten, tired and invariably falling asleep, so I had to increase my reading speed and become extra animated in my characterisations to make sure he didn’t drift off before the twist at the end.

I got out of the habit of reading aloud after that. There’s not much point in doing it if you don’t have someone to do it to. (That rule may apply to other things as well.) I did recently rediscover this recording of me reading, at sixteen, a bit of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, I think because I had to return it to the library and wanted a record of a few pages I’d enjoyed.

I could have made a photocopy, it occurs to me now, but I was probably in love with my own voice. It’s a crime I never went into radio, this narcissism is wasted in the library.

Literature as consolation

November 22, 2014

When I started the last post but one on this blog I’d meant to write about books.

All literature is consolation.

I believed for a moment that was an original thought of mine — after all, it’s about time — but in fact it’s something said by Dakin in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, as he makes the point that history is written after the fact. Even if it’s representative of euphoria, by the time it’s written the euphoria is over. By extension you might say it’s written by losers. If they were winners they’d be out there doing it, but they’re not so they’re in here writing about it.

When a couple of months ago a meme reached me on Facebook asking me to name ten books that had ‘stayed’ with me (retch), I listed ten favourite titles off the top of my head, the predictable Middlemarch, which I had just reread, Bleak House, Pride and Prejudice. If I had disregarded the accompanying instruction not to give the formulation of the list too much thought (thought, of course, being the enemy of the list), I might have ended up with something more interesting. What if I’d made a list of the books that had consoled me over the years?

Treehorn

As a little boy, I didn’t have much need of consolation. Mostly, I was happy. Children find comfort in familiarity, hence the bedtime plea to have Owl Babies for the ten thousandth time. There were fictional worlds I certainly did love and feel at home in: A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood; the unobtrusively Jewish milieu of Florence Parry Heide’s three offbeat books about the little boy Treehorn and his friend Moshie, with illustrations by Edward Gorey; the half real, half invented world of The BFG, which mixed places I knew couldn’t exist with places I knew did, though London felt as tantalisingly out of reach as Giant Country.

And yet still I worried about things. I worried about a fire breaking out on the landing in the middle of the night, which would have blocked my path downstairs to safety. I worried too about growing up and having to do National Service. (This was the time of the Gulf War.) If I’d known how to put my fears into words I could have been reassured about the abolition of conscription, but I didn’t, so I suffered in silence. Perhaps this explains my devotion to Peanuts, with its children (and animals) trying to cope with the challenges of a life they aren’t prepared for. I remember particularly Linus having to prepare a Bible reading for the Christmas pageant, something I empathised with. For recitation at school I had to learn

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—

I didn’t understand all the words, and I still can’t parse ‘As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky’.

I think I also had a crush on Woodstock.

Woodstock

When I was a teenager I turned to books for some kind of validation of my sexuality. Not that I ever agonised about being other — I always thought it was perfectly natural to feel as I felt — but I wanted to explore authors who might turn out to be kindred spirits. I read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice when I was fourteen, which I loved. (Had I seen Visconti’s film first? Possibly.) I think Edmund White may have been next, though the chronology is confused in my mind. White bemoans the fact that Death in Venice was the only ‘gay’ book he had access to. He thought it painted a grim picture of homosexuality, whereas I fell in love with the idea of the contemplation of beauty. Meanwhile, White’s writing pointed to a life of empty promiscuity, which didn’t appeal to me then and still doesn’t. (A neat demonstration of the fundamental difference between me and White: when he read Death in Venice at the same age as I did, he imagined himself as Tadzio, a boy with a power over older men; I automatically identified with Aschenbach, a man in the thrall of beauty, the pursuer but not the pursued. White was an instigator, I a mere observer.) James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was another important book to me at that time, especially the episode early on describing the narrator’s intense affair with another boy. I wish now that my reading had been less earnest. If I’d known about Armistead Maupin or David Sedaris, maybe I’d have had more fun.

Giovanni's Room

When I was fifteen I did a week’s work experience at a local independent bookshop. I suspected my boss of harbouring unpleasant right-wing views — he was a Rotarian and looked like General Pinochet — but at the end of a week of making window displays and drinking repulsive cups of tea made with Coffee-Mate he said I could choose £20 worth of books to take home, a generous gesture. One of the books I chose was Stephen Fry’s memoir Moab is My Washpot, just out in paperback. Ron made some quip about Fry being an ex-offender, but acquiesced to my selection.

More than any other book, Moab broadened the scope of my reading. The books Fry read became the books I read. He turned me on to forgotten men like T.C. Worsley and Angus Stewart and Michael Campbell (whose Lord Dismiss Us became a favourite novel of mine). I graduated much later to Henry de Montherlant. But more vital than the bibliography he provided was the story he told of his own adolescence, which mirrored my own in ways that made me feel I’d found not merely a friend but a confidant, odd though that sounds. I didn’t need to talk to him or write to him, as I knew innately that he understood me. I’m not as devout a Fryphile as I once was, but I will be eternally grateful to him for having written that book.

Nowadays when I turn to books for consolation it is invariably because of some emotional turmoil. My friend the Argumentative Old Git occasionally writes of his resistance to the idea of books as escapism, and I feel similarly, that the best literature is not a refuge from life but an exploration of it, that may help us to understand the world and ourselves more deeply. Nonetheless, when I want to escape something that’s plaguing me there are writers I turn to. Increasingly P.G. Wodehouse is the first I think of. I sometimes wish I knew what the alchemy was that makes his books so magical to me, but I imagine that to understand it would be to dissolve it. There’s something very comforting about reading a writer whose very presence is benevolent. That’s the case with Wodehouse and Maupin and Sedaris, and Anthony Trollope and Alexander McCall Smith and Jan Morris. The pianist and music writer Susan Tomes is another. A digression sideways to end with, the opening of an essay from her latest book, Sleeping in Temples:

A few years ago I became intrigued by the number of people coming up to me after concerts and telling me that listening to the music had helped them to feel better. Sometimes they were quite specific. They mentioned having felt unwell at work, feeling unsure if they ought to go to the concert or just go straight home instead and rest. They said that they took their seats in a pessimistic frame of mind, were drawn in by the music, caught up by the interaction between the musicians, somehow soothed by the effect of the music and gradually realised that the horrible headache had gone, the fatigue had lifted, that they were no longer feeling so down about whatever it was that had been on their minds.

Funny thing, art. Certain government ministers may wish to take note.

In memoriam Philip Ledger (1937-2012)

November 19, 2012

Sad news came this morning of the death of Philip Ledger at the age of 74. He preceded Stephen Cleobury as Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, a post he held from 1974 to 1982, and his carols and arrangements are still sung every year both at King’s and much further afield. I went to evensong at King’s this evening, and he was remembered in the service. A Ledger introit was sung by King’s Voices, and I suspect the beautiful final responses may have been his too.

It’s doubly sad to lose both Ledger and his frequent recital partner Robert Tear in the space of barely a year and a half. I have written before, I think, of my love for Tear and Ledger’s recordings of Harold Fraser-Simson’s settings of the hums of Winnie-the-Pooh. Our LP of Three Cheers for Pooh! got worn out in my childhood. Tear and Ledger are a delightful double-act in these songs, warm and witty. The recordings aren’t out on CD at the moment, I think, but you can sample them here, and there is even a link to a zip file of the whole album on that page, not of course that I condone bootlegs. You can more easily get hold of their performances of the songs of e.g. Benjamin Britten and Madeleine Dring, which are really quite as memorable.

Goodbye, and thank you.